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BC oil and gas regulator faces fracking lawsuit

The BC Liberal government's heavy push for liquified natural gas (LNG) development in the province may have successfully placated some opponents, such as big labour unions, with promises of more than 100,000 jobs and massive revenues for the province.

But with controversy over hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, trickling north from the U.S. -- where it has long been a pitched environmental battle -- B.C.'s Oil and Gas Commission now faces a lawsuit from environmental groups who accuse it of breaching the Water Act by granting hundreds of short-term permits to natural gas companies annually and allegedly endangering waterways.

Energy firm Encana is also named in the lawsuit.

Filed today, the lawsuit will be argued by environmental law firm Ecojustice on behalf of the Wilderness Committee and Sierra Club BC, whose campaigner Caitlyn Vernon said that the downside of the province's natural gas boom must be taken into account.

"The B.C. government's LNG agenda comes with a cost, and the cost is B.C.'s water," Vernon said in a statement. "The proposed new LNG industry would require a huge increase in drilling and fracking, sucking northern lakes and rivers dry and contaminating watersheds -- just as we're seeing increased droughts due to climate change."

The lawsuit comes just after B.C. announced a deal with Nexen, a subsidiary of Chinese state-owned CNOOC, on Tuesday to open a major facility called Aurora LNG. Last Wednesday, the province announced new findings suggesting northeastern B.C.'s Montney Formation may hold more than double previous estimates of gas, or 2,933 trillion cubic feet.

Announcing the Nexen deal on Tuesday, Natural Gas Minister Rich Coleman said that the industry is "redefining the economic prospects" of British Columbians.

"Building an LNG export industry is an unprecedented opportunity to create thousands of jobs while supplying Asian markets with the world's cleanest burning fossil fuel," he said in a statement. "Our government will ensure these benefits are enjoyed for generations to come."

Fracking is a controversial process to extract natural gas from shale rock deep underground. Massive amounts of water and chemicals are forced down drill holes at high pressure, cracking up the rock to release the fossil fuel. Pollution from the leftover contaminated water is one of environmentalists' greatest concerns, as well as the small earthquakes that can be caused by fracking and climate change.

Ecojustice staff lawyer Karen Campbell said that her clients are concerned about the ecological and water resource impact of hundreds of short-term permit approvals annually by the province.

"Our clients' position is that the Oil and Gas Commission is violating the Water Act and thereby unlawfully allowing oil and gas companies drain water from lakes, rivers and streams in the northeast for drilling and fracking," Campbell said in a statement.

Last week, demonstrators with the activist group Rising Tide set up a fake plastic fracking rig on Premier Christy Clark's front yard before being ordered to leave by police. Clark criticized the protest for creating an "aggressive" environment for her family, but activists retorted that hydraulic fracturing will have a much worse impact on people's homes and communities up north.

The impacts of hydraulic fracturing are also in question in Rexton, New Brunswick, where months of protests against SWN Resources' gas exploration boiled over in October with a massive police raid on Elsipogtog First Nation blockaders, to enforce the company's injunction. That ended in hundreds of police withdrawing after the arrest of 40 Mi'kmaq protestors and the burning of six police vehicles. This week, SWN resumed its explorations escorted by RCMP officers.

David P. Ball is a frequent contributor to The Tyee.

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